In the past nine months, at least six men in Hawaii have allegedly killed their wives in a string of incidents that highlight the mortal peril faced by battered women.

U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is a co-sponsor on bipartisan legislation to help victims of domestic violence to get free legal counsel. But the effort isn’t winning a lot of applause from Hawaii’s domestic violence activists. The bill, which passed the Senate unanimously in November, was drafted and introduced by Sens. Dan Sullivan, an Alaska Republican, and Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat from North Dakota.

The measure, known as the POWER Act or Pro Bono Work to Empower and Represent Act, would push the U.S. Justice Department to encourage lawyers to offer free legal assistance to people who are being battered by their domestic partners. Each judicial district in the country would be required to hold at least one event per year, in partnership with domestic violence experts, to urge local lawyers to provide pro bono legal services to victims. The idea behind it is that people who successfully obtain legal restraining orders against their abusers have a higher chance of surviving.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has introduced a bill to help domestic violence victims, but Hawaii advocates say they weren’t consulted. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Prominent domestic violence prevention specialists in Hawaii, however, scoffed at the measure as inadequate to meeting the demand for services, noting that some 575 individuals who are suffering from abuse get in contact with state and nonprofit agencies each day. Some specialists even said they believe the proposed legislation could be counter-productive because of the severity of the danger posed by abusers.

“This is well-meaning, but it won’t really address the need,” said Nanci Kreidman, chief executive officer of the Domestic Violence Action Center, a Honolulu-based agency that provides legal assistance and outreach to victims of domestic abuse. The financial resources available are far too limited to help all the people who need assistance, she said.

Encouraging the entry of novice lawyers into the field could even be dangerous, she added. “Pro bono legal assistance is problematic for several reasons. Untrained attorneys assisting survivors who may be in life-threatening situations can be potentially fatal. All attorneys must be trained to understand the risks and the right set of practices and interventions to be helpful, and not harmful.”

Kreidman and others also said they found it strange that Gabbard introduced the measure without consulting with them first, given that their organizations would have to provide training to attorneys who take on such cases for the first time.

“You can’t represent battered women just because you have a law degree,” Kreidman said.

“This is the first I am hearing of this,” said Marci Lopes, executive director for the Hawaii State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, a statewide partnership of domestic violence programs and shelters.

“Domestic violence is a huge problem in Hawaii,” she said in an email. “I am happy to hear that there are efforts happening, but it needs to be a coordinated effort. Each year there is well-meaning legislation that tried to get passed, but when it isn’t vetted with the local experts, sometimes the efforts are in fact harmful to survivors.”

In a statement, however, Gabbard noted that of the 575 survivors who seek help against their abusers each day in Hawaii, “too many” get no legal help at all. “The POWER Act will give domestic violence survivors in Hawaii and across the country access to affordable services as well as the protection that is often needed for themselves and their families.”

“While no single piece of legislation will provide domestic violence survivors all of the access and assistance needed, I’m committed to standing up for those who have been pushed down and speaking up for those who have be silenced,” Gabbard added in the email. “Domestic violence is not an issue to be swept under the rug, and unfortunately, there is not enough awareness or understanding of how best to help. I am eager to work with activists, advocates, and service providers in Hawaii and across the country to do all we can to help survivors and their families, and educate the public at large on how best to be a part of the solution.”

Lopes acknowledged that many efforts to seek help for victims of domestic abuse have failed because legislators do not provide funding for the programs. Gabbard’s proposal is an attempt to work around this problem by spurring voluntary efforts at assistance.

There is no dispute among the people involved, however, that domestic violence is a serious problem in Hawaii, with many victims threatened, injured, and in the worst cases, eventually killed.

“This is well-meaning, but it won’t really address the need.” — Nanci Kreidman of the Domestic Violence Action Center.

There are many similarities among the six deaths that were closely followed in news accounts since the start of the year.

In January, Isagani Fajotina, who had a previous record of spousal abuse, allegedly stabbed his wife, Melita Fajotina, 65, to death in Aliamanu on Oahu.

In April, Stephen Schmidt allegedly slashed the throat of his wife, Kehau Farias Schmidt, 24 and a child-care worker at an after-school program, at a Foodland grocery store in Wailuku, Maui. He allegedly had a previous record of domestic violence. She had obtained a temporary restraining order against him one week before her death.

In May, Dominador Basuel hacked his ex-wife, Leticia Basuel, 67, to death with a machete in Kahului on Maui. He then shot himself to death.

The next day, John Hoffman allegedly shot his wife, Aracely Hoffman, and their two children, a 5-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter, to death in Puna on the Big Island.

Two weeks later, in Honolulu, Sheryll Lacson Filiaga, 30 and a real estate agent, was killed by her husband, Eric Filiaga, who subsequently died in a car crash.

And in July, Justin Gibbons shot and killed his estranged wife, Celestae Gibbons, a 42-year-old dental technician, in front of their 9-year-old daughter in Puhu on Kauai. He then shot and killed himself.

Domestic abuse was highlighted again in September, when the Hawaii Public Housing Authority reported that 1,123 people who had sought rental-housing assistance in August told officials at the agency that they had been abused in their homes. Many were seeking inexpensive housing to make an escape from intolerable lives at home.

More than 10,000 low-income, elderly and disabled people had applied for the 50 available slots, so most of the applicants, including many of the battered women, were turned away.

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